When the Left Strays Too Far From the Center

What happened to the Labor Party? For many years it was the major political organization in Israel, and in later years one of the country’s two large parties. But now it is a shrunken wreck of a party.


By Moshe Arens

(A version of this column appeared in Haaretz on August 19, 2009.)

What happened to the Labor Party? For many years it was the major political organization in Israel, and in later years one of the country’s two large parties. But now it is a shrunken wreck of a party.

The answer to this question lies in the old maxim about politics in democratic countries – don’t stray too far from the political center. That lesson was learned in the United States by the Republican Party after its candidate, Barry Goldwater, strayed too far right in the presidential elections of 1964 and lost by a landslide to Lyndon Johnson. It happened again to the Democratic party after its candidate, George McGovern, moved too far left and lost by a landslide to Richard Nixon in 1972.

For many years, in the days of David Ben-Gurion, Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir, Labor was itself the center of the Israeli political scene. With the Likud’s victory in 1977 Labor positioned itself slightly left of center, and still maintained itself as one of the two major parties of Israeli politics.

Yitzhak Rabin broke the string of Likud victories in 1992, appearing as a slightly left-of-center hawk. But everything changed with the Oslo Accords in 1993, which Rabin hesitatingly supported.

From there it was an unending swing left for Labor and a series of defeats at the polls. That changed momentarily when Ehud Barak led the party to victory in 1999 – appearing as a hawk who had been critical of the Oslo accords. But his readiness as prime minister to concede the Golan Heights to the Syrians, and the egregious concessions he offered to Yasser Arafat at Camp David, changed everything.

The Labor Party had moved too far left to remain a serious contender in Israeli elections.

In 2001, 2003, 2006 and again in the last elections Labor suffered what were predictably resounding defeats. For much of the Israeli public it was just too far left. Its leaders were prepared to offer almost everything before negotiations even began – the Golan Heights, Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), the Temple Mount – but they could not get most of the public to follow them.

Why much of the Israeli public remains skeptical about the chances of moving the peace process forward by offering endless concessions to the Palestinians and the Syrians is a question for another time. What is clear, though, is that Israelis who have roots in Muslim countries and immigrants from the former Soviet Union are considerably more skeptical – or more realistic, if you will – when it comes to the peace process than traditional supporters in North Tel Aviv or the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem.

If in Labor circles they complain that the party has not been able to connect with the majority of the population, the reason is not far off.

It is interesting how quickly the Republicans recognized the need to reposition themselves after the Goldwater defeat, as did the Democrats after the McGovern defeat. These are the political reflexes that are needed to succeed in politics.

The Labor Party seems to lack these reflexes. What is needed, in addition to ideology, is a realization that the voter may be right after all, and that without his or her the support, one cannot succeed in politics.

Nature abhors a vacuum. And into the political vacuum created by the shrinking of Labor jumped the new Kadima party, cannibalizing much of what was left of Labor.

Claiming that they are a center party, or even the center party, intent on making peace with the Palestinians and prepared to make large-scale concessions, while not committing themselves on the Golan Heights, and talking about playing rough with Hamas in Gaza, Kadima’s leaders have won one election, and came close to winning the last one.

In that election what they lost to the Likud they made up by gaining from Labor. Whether they will succeed in making a permanent place for themselves on the political scene is still open to debate.

But here lies the opportunity for a revival of the Labor Party. Unless they can move toward the center, they will continue on the path toward the scrap heap.

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